Book Review : John D. MacDonald - A Purple Place for Dying (1964)
John D. MacDonald is the best forgotten writer we have. Quite frankly, he doesn't deserve to be a forgotten writer. The man wrote a twenty-one novels series that spawned over two decades, a little novel titled Cape Fear that was turned into a movie starring Robert de Niro and Nick Nolte and stellar books like The End of the Night which nobody remembers. So, I've taken upon myself to revive John D. MacDonald's memory in popular culture. Today, I'm going to discuss A Purple Place for Dying, the third novel in MacDonald's Travis McGee series. It's unfortunately the weakest McGee novel so far, but that statement might require context, so....
Bear with me.
McGee is traveling out of Florida in A Purple Place for Dying, to meet a prospective client named Mona Yeoman. If you're not familiar with Travis McGee, his deal is simple: if you got fucked over, he'll retrieve whatever you lost and keep fifty percent. Yeoman's problem is that she married a controlling asshole when she was young. The man allegedly trained her estate and left her to fend for herself. Straightforward case, right? Except McGee doesn't want anything to do with Mona Yeoman. Until she's shot down like a dog and dies in his arms before she could close her case. That changed thing for Travis McGee. Now that Mona Yeoman died on his watch, he feels the responsibility to clear his name of her untimely death...
What makes Travis McGee special is that he is somewhat of a philosopher. The job is not only the job to him and he doesn't accept cases from clients he doesn't like. And his clients always happen to be gorgeous, but desperate women. McGee's keen observational skills and natural intuition always paints a seductive portrait of his client's lives to us, partly because he needs to convince himself of their righteousness. He's the ultimate unreliable narrator, but he's in both benevolent and in control. A Purple Place for Dying hits the ground running with a great first chapter where McGee is highly dubious of Mona Yeoman's sincerity and intent. John D. MacDonald's idea of having the client die on Chapter 1 also looked terrific on paper, but it doesn't quite pan out like your would expect.
Mona Yeoman's death leave Travis McGee to fend for himself among strangers who all want to use him to further their own private agenda. And he doesn't have a choice to go along if he wants to investigate on his own and clear his name. So, A Purple Place for Dying is kind of stripped of that passion McGee has for his job. It's replaced by something much more common in mysteries : survival instinct. That doesn't mean that A Purple Place for Dying is a middling mystery, it's still way above average, but it doesn't have the compelling intimacy of The Deep Blue Good-By or Nightmare in Pink. Travis McGee is much closer to being a traditional hardboiled detective in his magnetic self. The first four McGee novels were written very closely to one another, so I guess John D. MacDonald was still trying stuff out. A Purple Place for Dying is solid, but it doesn't work as well as the first two.
I've been savoring John D. MacDonald's bibliography like a junkie afraid to run out of smack for over a year, now. I've been scattering my hits at the most strategic moment possible between longing and withdrawal. The fact that A Purple Place for Dying is not as great as The Deep Blue Good-By or Nightmare in Pink is actually a great thing, because it'll allow me to quicken up the pace without fearing I might miss a thoughtful of phrase. That is how highly I think of John D. MacDonald. The man was not a stylist, but he was the Michael Jordan of storytelling. If you haven't already, you should start reading the Travis McGee novels right away. It is filled with these special moments every reader is longing for.